Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Work is a Bountiful Gift

Charles Wesley wrote this hymn encouraging believers to honor God in their workaday lives.


Forth in Thy Name, O Lord, I Go

                Forth in thy Name, O Lord, I go,
                my daily labor to pursue;
                thee, only thee, resolved to know
                in all I think or speak or do.

                The task thy wisdom hath assigned,
                O let me cheerfully fulfill;
                in all my works thy presence find,
                and prove thy good and perfect will.

                Thee may I set at my right hand,
                whose eyes mine inmost substance see,
                and labor on at thy command,
                and offer all my works to thee.

                For thee delightfully employ
                What e'er thy bounteous grace hath given
                And run my course with even joy,
                and closely walk with thee to heaven.

This hymn affirms some wonderful things about the Christian view of work and worship.

God has graciously and wisely assigned us our task. Work, biblically speaking, is a bountiful gift from God in which we engage in God's calling, honor God, love our neighbor, and take part in the foreshadowing of the coming kingdom of God. Yes, really, this is how the Christian faith looks at work.

The best way to 'take God to work' with us is to recognize that he is already there. We do not need to bring God kicking and screaming into our daily lives where we do not really know where he fits anyway. He is already ahead of us working in the lives of those we live and work with, and he can even be at work in the labor itself.

When we are aware of God's presence and wisdom within our labors, there can be delight and joy. It is the perspective shift that makes this possible - God is here at work in my/our labors which he has graciously given.

We are having a great time at Living Hope Church on Tuesday nights in our series, "The Work God Made Us For" digging into these issues and what Scripture has to say about them. You are invited!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Church as a Public Institution

James Davison Hunter on the politicization of American culture in "To Change the World":

"If modern politics is the sphere of leadership, influence, and activity surrounding the state, politicization is the turn toward law and politics - the instrumentality of the state - to find solutions to public problems....This is demonstrated by the simple fact that the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases." (pg. 102)

"It is difficult to even imagine much less accept the idea that there should be public space occupied by activities or organizations that are completely independent of the political realm. The realm of politics has become, in our imagination, the dominant - and for some the only adequate - expression of our collective life....This in turn has brought about a narrowing of the complexity and richness of public life and with it, a diminishing of possibility for thinking of alternative ways to address common problems and issues." (pg. 106)

I find Hunter's analysis here hauntingly and almost depressingly accurate. I say "almost" because I believe the accuracy of what he portrays opens a door for the church to step in as that public institution that has other, non-political and non-legal ways of answering our common problems. But this requires that the church and her leaders learn how to address the issues of the day and the universal issues of the human condition without waiting on those in public power to lead the way. Here are some thoughts on how that may happen.

The church has answers the state will never truly grasp. Even if most people in positions of legal, media, educational, and political power were genuine followers of Jesus Christ, we live in a pluralistic culture in which the imposition of "Christian" laws will, in the end, do only a little good. The church must learn to lead the way. Do not wait for a vote to have a sweeping cultural consequence. Step up and address life with the unique set of resources the church has at its command.

Our theology must lead the way. We are currently told that theology is backwards, coercive, and an outdated way of thinking in our modern age. But that is what people who do not understand Christian theology tell us, so why do we have any reason at all to believe their dismissive point of view? Theology well done, with its eyes wide open to all of God's truth, is a powerful and wide-ranging guide for our common problems. Maybe one reason the world sees us like specialists in alchemy and phrenology is because we have not taken our theology seriously enough.

Church leaders need to broaden their own education and understanding of the world. Specifically, I believe pastors need to stop being experts in mid-level management techniques and start being experts in the kingdom of God and the human soul. Pastors ought to read broadly and often. They need to acquaint themselves with the best out there in the fields of science, sociology, psychology, history, biography, philosophy, theology, and more. Then their sermons need to reflect that self-education.


The church needs to be courageous. One of the themes carried through the book of Acts is that Christians "spoke boldly" when they had the chance. Christians carry a message that sticks out and will be called names, but it is a message that has the power to save and transform lives. But that will only happen when the church learns to be winsome, wise, and bold.

Friday, January 16, 2015

How To Avoid Discipleship - Mishandle Doubt

Doubt is natural in every human life on nearly every conceivable level. In human relationships there are doubts about loyalties, loves, behavior, and intentions. In education there is doubt about value and truth. In business there is doubt about decision making, markets, and people. And on the story goes.

Certainty, genuine certainty, is rare. Often, when humans project certainty they are ripe for a dislocation of their beliefs unless they have already processed their doubts. False certainty is a thin defense against the inevitable waves of doubt. A Christian will not settle their doubts or the doubts of others by pretending to ‘have it all together’ or acting as if they have all the answers to all the difficult questions.

In my experience, doubt is not only universal, it can be a powerful teacher. If doubt is handled well it can lead us into genuine insight and a deeper relationship with God. If doubt is handled poorly, it can lead either to a false and thin confidence or a shipwrecked faith. Here are some quick thoughts on how not to handle doubt.

Do not pretend they don’t exist. This may be the first line of defense when a genuine issue arises within our hearts and minds or in conversation with a friend, but the tendency to act as if the doubt does not exist or is not significant actually gives more weight to the doubt. Over time a person will begin to think that because they or their Christian friends were unable to even admit the doubt, it must be scary enough to be true.

Do not give or accept trite, quick answers. This has the same long-term consequence as refusing to admit they are real. Simplistic answers do not suffice to deal with significant issues or problems people face, which raise doubts about God and his nature. Suffering and loss are significant, and so should be the process of dealing with them in light of the existence of a good and providential God. Feel enough confidence in God’s active care of people to take time and wrestle with real issues.

Do not give in. The Christian faith is true; it’s all true. Giving in is common among those who struggle with doubt, but that need not be the case. Others have been where you are and others have been in more dire situations than you and they have found God to be just and true. You can, too. God knows we struggle with doubt, so he meets people in deep and powerful ways when they seek him in the midst of their personal darkness. I found a God who cares in the depths of feeling minuscule and I no longer worry about his loving attention. Let your doubt lead you to a revelation of his unchanging character. You cannot do that if you give in.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Opening the Faith to Examination

Much has been written in response to the recent Newsweek article by Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” So much so, that the various and obvious mistakes and oversimplifications by the author have been revealed and the article itself shown to be, fundamentally, a screed. But if the article is useless in actually understanding the ins and outs of biblical interpretation and translation, it may be ironically useful in highlighting a virtue of the Christian faith.

It is often argued that Christianity is believed on faith (faith defined as ‘against good reasons’), and is thus fundamentally anti-intellectual. It is said that if Christians would only open their minds to reason, skepticism, and science they will see the error of their ways. The Christian, in short, does not think and their faith is ripe for the shredding. When push comes to shove, however, it turns out that Christianity is open to rational investigation and the current trend of anti-Christian skepticism and New Atheism is a closed loop of fundamentalism.

In his Vital Magazine article, “Who’s Misunderstood,Newsweek?”, George P. Wood makes this point, “Yes, I want to take Eichenwald to task for some of the unfounded things he wrote in this article. But I also want to listen to him. My friend Craig S. Keener once said, ‘When we fail at self-critique, God sometimes raises up outsiders to help us (gently or not).’ Might Eichenwald—despite the many errors of fact and judgment in his piece—nonetheless be raising some important questions?” George follows this up with a set of questions worth asking and answering as well as we can.

He is right to note both things: Eichenwald’s article is an intellectual embarrassment, and the Christian faith still takes the challenge and the questions seriously. As a matter of theology and history – principle and practice – the Christian faith is an open book. Quite literally our book has been open to scrutiny and study since day one and anyone who tells you differently has not done their homework. Christian theologians have opened their formulations to scholarly and practical criticism. This necessary virtue of the Christian faith can be summed up in the questions, “Is it true?” and “Does it make sense of life?” The fact that plenty of Christians and individual churches have embraced blind faith does not negate our actual theology and historical practice.

The Christian famously believes that all truth is God’s truth, thus the believer should not be afraid of questions and differing points of view. If an issue is raised that the Christian does not know what to do with, I guarantee someone else has. Most challenges to the Christian faith are nothing new, so they have been answered in one form or another for hundreds of years by some of the world’s leading thinkers. If the challenge comes from a new corner of science or philosophy, the Christian only needs to draw on the deep well of current, credible resources.

The Christian also believes that their faith will be refined and strengthened the closer to the truth they come. We believe deeply in truth and the existence of a God who is the very ground of being, so it is important for us to come closer and closer to our God. In his epistles, Paul consistently commends knowledge of God (Greek, scientia) to his readers and says that it is vital for their growth toward Christ. The Old Testament has an entire genre of literature called Wisdom Literature which commends both intellectual knowledge of God and wise living in the ways of God. Thinking and living in the open air of investigation is in the Christian’s blood.

In stark contrast, the current form of atheism is like two of the three famous monkeys sitting on a fence. Their hands are over their eyes so they will not see other points of view, their hands are over their ears so they will not hear criticism of their own views, but their mouths are wide open.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

What About Living As If He Really Does Exist?

So now we have an ex-Christian pastor turned atheist after an experiment in which he lived a year as if God did not exist. This gives me reason to wonder what might happen if people resolved to live as if God did exist. And not just any god, but the God revealed in the Christian Bible. What would happen to a skeptic if they obeyed all the things Christ commanded us to do? What if the ex-pastor had resolved to live a year as a genuine disciple before experimenting with atheism?

What if Christians themselves resolved to live a year as if their God really did exist and really did give them power to live his kind of life here on earth? Have a hard time imagining that? I guess you and I are not alone.

But here is why skeptics will not do it. If you actually decide to live like that, even for a short period of time, you are accountable to a moral system that goes deeper than fakeable surface behaviors and does not change when you wish it to. If you want to live like an atheist you are accountable to no moral system in particular. For all the bluster about atheists living moral lives, the term 'moral' in that assertion is up for as many interpretations as there are individuals and situations. Our ex-pastor may have chosen a vague Western system of (ironically) Judeo-Christian values, but he would have been equally justified in picking militant Central American Communism to guide his steps and kill the next capitalist he saw. Without God, both are equal choices. The problem for humans is, with God, they are not and we are responsible for the lives we lead to Someone more powerful and eternal than us.

That bugs the skeptic. It, in fact, bugs every human heart until that human realizes how good it is to live the way the Manufacturer laid out the plans. God is Supreme Lord of all, but he is also irrevocably good and his mercies are new every morning. His disposition toward us now is patience; his very nature is love. Nothingness provides me with none of that, and all the whistling in the dark and making my own meaning without Him still leaves the darkness in charge.

So what might you have to do in order to live a year as if God really did exist? Here is a smattering of commands given to the follower of Jesus Christ. Try them on for size.

"Follow me." Jesus
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength....You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Jesus
"Put to death what is earthly in you....Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience." Paul
"Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God...casting all your cares on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful." Peter
"Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind." Peter
"Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." Paul
"Little children, keep yourselves from idols." John

We could go on nearly ad infinitum.


It is easy for the human psyche to make the decision, "I'm going to unchain myself from the responsibility I have living under the sun, but I will continue to use it for fuel." It takes a hard-core soul to say, "I will unchain myself from the sun and live as if that really just happened." But what if a human soul recognizes what the sun is and why it is there? What if we make a decision like, "I live under the sun and receive life itself from it, so I will live as if that really is the case."

Friday, January 09, 2015

I Do Not Think Christianity Means What You Think It Means

Ex-pastor Ryan Bell experimented lately with living without God, blogging about it at YearWithoutGod.com, and more recently he penned a column for CNN.com in which he details some of the reasons behind his de-conversion. Conversion and de-conversion are always fascinating to me. They give brief glimpses into not only ‘reasons for’ and ‘reasons against’ their beliefs, but glimpses into the conditions that led to a person’s decision. Bell writes straightforwardly and honestly about several of his conclusions, and it has given me reason to process what he said.

Having skimmed through some of his blog, I see that he writes with an irenic tone and I appreciate that. Additionally, I have no pretense of trying to answer his questions and attempt a re-conversion. But I am moved to reflect, for a few reasons, on what he said and I think a few thoughts are in order on this kind of disbelief.

First, if circles of Christians are as shallow and simplistic as he makes his upbringing out to be, they need to repent and reclaim the depths of their faith. Bell portrays a faith, either purposefully or tangentially, that simply was not able to deal with some very straightforward issues. The problem of evil is ever present in de-conversion stories and his is no different. He is attracted to current cultural morays and considers Christian doctrine to be out of step. He actually believes that the Christian faith degrades the value of this world and this life. All of these issues are easily dealt with by Christian doctrine and life, but he was not apparently around people who thought so. And if so, that is a crying shame. There are plenty of pockets of anti-intellectualism within the Christian world, and it need not be.

That being said, all of us are intellectually responsible for these kinds of decisions, and to caricature the faith in such simplistic terms, leave it there, and come to unreasonable conclusions as a result, partakes in a rising form of anti-intellectualism. It is the rational sloppiness at the very core of New Atheism that labels faith as irrational and simplistic, and thus dismisses it by definition and not by argumentation.

Secondly – and this is true of every atheist I have ever personally interacted with or watched online – I simply do not recognize the faith they left. When they describe what ‘Christians believe’ I have no idea where they got their ideas. When they ‘argue’ against Christian doctrine, I see straw-men made of flash paper. I am not moved by their reasons because they make no sense to me. I am not startled by their arguments because they were answered centuries ago. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, I do not think Christianity means what they think it means.

For example, Bell goes on about how the Christian faith degrades the value of this world and this life, and that he feels he has found a much more meaningful life without God. He writes:

As I come to terms with the fact that this life is the only one I get, I am more motivated than ever to make it count.
 I want to experience as much happiness and pleasure as I can while helping others to attain their happiness. I construct meaning in my life from many sources, including love, family, friendships, service, learning and so on.
 Popular Christian theology, on the other hand, renders this life less meaningful by anchoring all notions of value and purpose to a paradise somewhere in the future, in a place other than where we are right now. Ironically, my Christian upbringing taught me that ultimately this life doesn't matter, which tends to make believers apathetic about suffering and think that things will only get worse before God suddenly solves everything on the last day.

Bell has rejected a bad Sunday school version of the Christian faith, a faith that has raised the lives of untold millions of people in systems that would have otherwise destroyed them like so many sick dogs. A simple review of Christian history (as it actually happened, not as the NAs tell it) contradict his conclusion. In addition, one of the core tenants of the Christian faith sanctifies this life in this flesh – the Incarnation of God himself. Yet, Bell is hardly alone. It is common fair to accuse the Christian faith of looking too much to the other side and stripping this life of meaning. But here is where an ex-pastor has the intellectual responsibility to dig a little deeper than a bad Sunday school teacher and spend a little time with Augustine or Aquinas. How about St. Patrick? Why not learn about the theologically rooted and radical hospitality and generosity of Oswald Chambers?

In another place he makes an obviously false observation when he writes:

It struck me this year that nihilism is a disease born of theism. Some people have been taught to expect meaning outside of this world beyond our earthly experiences. When they come upon the many absurdities of life and see that it's "not as advertised," an existential despair can take hold.
 The problem is not solved by inventing a God in which to place all our hopes, but rather, to face life honestly and create beauty from the absurd.

The critical error here is equating finding meaning ‘outside this world’ with the idea that therefore, this world has little to no meaning. Christians root existence itself in the being and loving creative activity of God, but that has literally everything to do with this life and this physical world. The contradiction follows necessarily from the error in the premise: the belief that all is meaningless comes from a belief that infuses the universe with meaning. And then the silly conclusion follows: so we strive against the darkness and make our own meaning. Well, so did Pol Pot and the Nazis.

I literally do not recognize the faith he, and countless others, claim to have rejected.

A new reality is creeping up on us from the corners. There is a new fundamentalism among us. There is a new conventional wisdom and popular consensus that refuses to countenance rival ideas, and it has everything to do with belief in God but not in the way you have been told.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

How To Avoid Being a Disciple, Part 2 - Refuse a Theology of Difficult Things

It is nearly axiomatic in the life of Christians that their greatest struggles with faith come in times of stress and difficulty. Financial pressures squeeze families. Serious illnesses come out of nowhere and throw every expectation and hope out the window. Betrayal pulls the rug out from underneath our relationships.  And on the story goes. Struggles of every kind create unexpected bends in the river and create tension for us, tensions between what we expected to happen, what we hope will happen, what we expect of God in our lives, and who we think God really is.

To paraphrase a popular bumper sticker, all kinds of awful things happen. This is the human experience, and as such, it needs to be dealt with in ways that make sense of both our experience and our faith. If we believe in a sovereign God, we need to come to terms with his plan and power and the fact that things in our lives often do not go the way we expect them to. On the whole, however, we have failed at this task. We have simply not taken enough time on the "street level" of Christian lives to develop a theology of difficult things - an understanding that God is still good and great even when we suffer. And the failure to do so is more than a theological oversight, it is another way in which we avoid discipleship.

If we are unable to develop a clear and faithful understanding of God in the most trying times of life, we will find ourselves tossed and turned by even the slightest of winds. It will not necessarily be the gale-force gusts that topple our faith, it may be one contrary breeze. There is no surer way to destroy the future faith of a young believer than to insinuate that if they follow Jesus everything will go well for them. If we do not deepen our comprehension of God beyond believing in his greatness and goodness when "all is well," we will end up with a shallow projection of ourselves and our wishes on the sky, resulting in us following ourselves and not God. Our default theology is never who God actually is, but who we wish him to be.

At the very least, the disciple must learn where they stand in the God-to-human gamut of power. God is God, I am not and can never be. God is, by his very nature, necessarily good and right. I am, by my very nature, small in power and rife with error. So the disciple learns to respond to God's very existence and his call with confident abandon. The three Hebrew children about to be thrown into Nebuchadnezzar's famous fiery furnace understood this well. They refused to bow down to the pagan idol because they knew who truly was God. At the moment of their peril they said, "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up" (Daniel 3:17-18).  In another situation, not leading to potential death but to a radical change in the rest of her life, a young girl also saw what this meant for her. When the angel Gabriel told Mary that as a virgin she would give birth to her long-awaited Messiah, and that her older cousin was also surprisingly pregnant, she replied, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:38).


If the follower of Jesus Christ gains an understanding of the character and power of God, they become able to follow him in the most complicated of times. This is not to say it will be easy - that would, in fact, contradict my entire point. The three Hebrew children were actually thrown into the fiery furnace and Mary watched her son be executed by the Romans. But if a Christian fails or refuses to come to terms with their sovereign and good God in the midst of trials, in the end they will follow their feelings instead. It is a very quick way to avoid being a disciple.